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Child care advocates hold hopes high for new bill to unionize providers

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Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon is introducing a new bill on Wednesday that aims to address the state's critical child care shortage and give providers the right to unionize.

The lack of sufficient child care has been statewide. In Los Angeles County, a recent study found only 2 percent of infants and toddlers have access to a licensed child care facility; for preschoolers, it's about 40 percent.

The shortage is most acute in low-income areas, and the bill aims to inject more child care vouchers into the system so poor families can have free child care.

A more controversial provision, however, would allow collective bargaining for those who provide child care in their homes whose earnings can fall near or below the minimum wage. Child advocates cite poor pay as a major reason why providers often leave the field.

“The turnover in the child care field is approaching 30 percent. So the lack of continuity and quality care is a major obstacle,” said El Cerrito Mayor Mark Friedman.

Friedman co-chairs a coalition of early childhood groups called Raising California Together. Preschool advocacy groups, anti-poverty and immigrant groups, NAACP, and the Santa Monica school district count among its members.

“I think one thing everybody agrees on as a high priority is getting more resources in the system, and if there is a strong union presence in the field that then there will be a stronger voice for those additional resources,” said Friedman. 

Under the bill,  a network of 32,000 home childcare providers statewide could unionize. Currently, providers operate as independent business owners and typically lack the right to organize and collectively bargain for wages.

Finding child care

For many families, having a quality child care option is their most pressing need.

Vicky Montoya, a Reseda mother of three, is desperate for a child care alternative to family members. Montoya’s 18-month-old son, Esteban, is a bright-eyed toddler who loves balls. He can fling one clear across a room, even a field. But all too often, when both his parents are at work, he’s not doing much.

“Sometimes he’s with an aunt, sometimes with my eldest daughter,” Montoya said in Spanish. “But he doesn’t really do anything, all he does is watch cartoons on TV. And he’s alone, there’s no other children around.”

Montoya works five hours a day at a solar company, where she makes $10 an hour. Her family depends on her income to supplement her husband’s low-wage, full-time job. Montoya applied for a child care voucher so Esteban could go to a properly licensed day care. She submitted two applications to a local agency over the last two months.

When she called the agency to find out the status of her applications, she said she wasn't given much information. “'You are on the waiting list,'” she said they told her, “'and there are people ahead of you.'”

Seeking unions as a solution

In Maryland, unionized providers reduced the wait list for poor families by 80 percent by securing state dollars to fund more free child care slots. According to a 2010 report by the National Women's Law Center, 14 states guarantee home-based child care workers the right to unionize.

SEIU Local 99 spokesperson Terry Carter said what local providers tell her is that they want a seat at the table where child care decisions are made.

“What collective bargaining would do for providers is it would let them sit down with the top decision makers in the state and say these are things that are simple to fix, they would vastly improve our ability to operate our businesses and they would give us the time to direct more of our attention and energies into raising California’s kids,” Carter said.  

Some of those issues include delayed government payments for subsidized child child and the low reimbursement rate from the state for serving low-income kids.

Antonia Rivas, a Reseda child care provider, knows well the struggle of providing care in her home. She infuses yoga and meditation into daily lessons, and buys organic food, her major expense.

But she also has to pay her assistants, buy toys, books, and supplies. After her costs, she said there is not much left.

“I just got my 2014 W-2 and it's $24,000,” Rivas said. Her W-2 comes from the agency that pays her for the low-income kids she serves. Add to that the $15,000 from her private paying families and Rivas pulled in about $40,000 last year. After expenses, she estimates she netted less than the minimum wage for her time.

Rivas said with her low wages and delays in receiving payments from government agencies for subsidized child care, she is constantly relying on credit to keep her business running.

“We need to get a contract [and] better pay,” Rivas said.

Even if the child care legislation passes, a contract with the state would be a long way down the road. All child care providers would need to vote on whether they want union representation. And, if all that is successful, child care providers could then negotiate a labor contract.

Similar bills granting child care providers the right to unionize have made it out of the legislature, but both Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gov. Jerry Brown have vetoed them.

Opponents have called the effort to organize providers a move to empower labor unions, not fix a broken child care system. 

Recent legal rulings are also presenting challenges to unions seeking to organize both child care workers and health care workers. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year in an Illinois case that home health workers could opt out of paying union dues, even though they are paid with state subsidies.

While Vicky Montoya waits for a better solution for her son's care, she pays Esteban’s aunt or a neighbor $10 a day to watch him while she works.

“I know lots of families who have to leave their children with a babysitter, usually just a woman who watches the child. But they are not trained and even their homes are not suitable for childcare,” she said. 

Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously described a U.S. Supreme Court case as originating in Minnesota. 

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